Yesterday, chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union Mark Dodson expressed a desire to bring more non-Scottish players into Scottish rugby and the national team. A statement like this from a Tier I officials should send all Tier II officials to the phones to let Bernard Lapasset how dangerous this can be.
For those who don’t know, Dodson’s statement arises from the successful integration of winger Tim Visser into the national team. Visser was born and raised in the Netherlands and is the son of a former member of the Dutch national team (He also has a brother, Sep, who has also played for the Netherlands). After being spotted in the Amsterdam Sevens, Visser went to England to play school rugby. From there he signed a contract with Newcastle. He didn’t see too much time for the club and even went out on loan for a time. Eventually, Visser signed for Edinburgh where his career took off. For the last two seasons Visser has been a try machine where he caught the eye of many people, including the Scottish national team.
Visser turned down chances to play for the Dutch team so that he could represent Scotland. In order to be eligible to play for Scotland he had to complete three years of residency in Scotland. That time came due this last summer, and he was immediately called into the national team.
For Scotland and Visser, things worked out well, but not so much for the Dutch. When you hear the name Netherlands you don’t think rugby, you think football (soccer) or even baseball. The team plays in the European Nations Cup First Division (they were just relegated from the First Division B which featured Belgium, Moldova, Poland, Czech Republic, and Germany). The Dutch team only features two players that aren’t based in the Netherlands—Sep Visser and Giorgi Tskitshivilli, who plays in France. So even with Visser on the team it probably wouldn’t improve the Netherlands results. Why is this even such a big deal?
It’s a big deal because of the precedent that it sets. Without getting into a discussion about nationality, the idea that Tier I nations are seeking to plunder the best talent from Tier II and developing nations is wrong for the game. For instance, what is to stop a team in Scotland or Italy from only promising a contract to a player for overseas if they commit to playing for Scotland or Italy? True, Italy, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland only have a limited number of spaces for national team players, but taking the best away from everyone else goes against the fairness of the game. If Scotland consistently struggles to beat the other Six Nations countries, then that is their problem. They need to look internally into their own country’s problems and come up with a solution rather than stealing players from other nations.
So how does this impact the United States? First, it should be noted that many Tier II nations have relied on players that have gained residency and then played for the Eagles. However, none of these players were ever going to play for their host country. As much as Hayden Smith was an excellent lock, he was never going to pull on a Wallabies shirt. The real impact on international rugby is shown with the example of Hanno Dirksen.
Dirksen and his family moved to America from South Africa when he was a teenager. The Eagles head coach at the time, Scott Johnson, brought Dirksen into the national team and played him in a non-cap match. Later, when Johnson left the Eagles for a position with Ospreys, he helped get Dirksen a spot at Truro College. Later he signed with Ospreys where he has been a breakout player. Last year Dirksen announced that he intended to wait until 2014 in order to play for Wales.
Now, at that point in his life Dirksen would have spent as much time in the UK has he had in the U.S., so it’s hard to blame him for wanting to represent Wales. But what has to be the most disappointing for U.S.A. Rugby is the fact that they put resources and time into developing Dirksen. If they had know that he was going to leave them for Wales they would have put their resources elsewhere.
Because Tier II nations do not have a vast amount of rugby resources and tools at their disposal to develop young players, they have to rely on Tier I nations’ resources. It’s unfair for a Tier II nation to have a seventeen year old be fortunate enough to land a spot on an Premiership academy team only to see him capped for the other nation.
The IRB needs to step up and put in place firm guidelines for handling players from non-Tier I nations. There need to be guarantees that players who take the opportunity to learn the game in a Tier I nation will not be poached. Improving non-Tier I nations is only good for the game. Which would Mr. Dodson choose, a winger who may help them win one more game at the Six Nations, or an improved playing field in world rugby that produces even more players like Visser and improves the quality of international play?
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